At some point during my first year in college, I discovered reification -- the turning of a concept into a thing. It was an epiphany (another word I discovered the same year). If you looked, you could see ”it” all around you. My professors’ obsession with defining ”law,” the belief that there was a single entity called ”intelligence” that IQ tests could uncover, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness was simply ubiquitous. It also illuminated many other practices; the way idolatry distorts an ideal of transcendence by substituting the physical idol for the quality idolized, for example, or even the fetishist’s association of desire with some particular object that represents it. (I dabbled in Freudianism also.)
When I started writing about technology, I found the concept just as useful. For at least 10 or 15 years educators went gaga over ”the computer.” Sleek, modern, progressive, competitive, it represented everything they imagined the future to be and thus it came to stand for all those things, generally without achieving them. ”We have computers!” was the proud claim of school districts everywhere. ”Really, and what are you doing with them?” should have been the response. But that wasn’t the point. The computer embodied all the values of sophistication. Merely to have it, was to have them: like a lion’s claw necklace that conveys the courage of the beast to the wearer. Eventually, familiarity began to undermine the fetishism. When your students’ cell phones have vastly more processing power than the Apollo 11 computer, and are mainly used for texting, it is hard to retain your reverence. That particular example of misplaced concreteness is fading, but there are always others to take its place.